Council narrowly approves closed captioning mandate

Council narrowly approves closed captioning mandate

Mercer: ‘Grave concerns’ on impact to businesses

PAWTUCKET – Officials last week made Pawtucket the first community in Rhode Island to require that closed captioning be turned on at all times on televisions in businesses that serve the public, but passage of the new ordinance came with plenty of controversy.

Four of nine council members, Council President David Moran and Councilors Terry Mercer, Mark Wildenhain, and Larry Tetreault, opposed changing the rules to require closed captioning be on whenever the TV is on, all saying they worried about the potential impact on business owners.

Five council members, Meghan Kallman, Sandra Cano, Albert Vitali Jr., John Barry III and Tim Rudd, all voted in favor of the new law.

Councilor Barry asked that the new law not be implemented until September, giving officials time to educate business owners on what they need to do.

Mercer, chairman of the council’s ordinance subcommittee, said the proposal came out of that committee without a recommendation due to “grave concerns” that Pawtucket is overstepping its bounds by making a rule that’s not found in state law. Changes like these should be made by the Rhode Island General Assembly, he said, and Pawtucket shouldn’t hand down a rule that no other community places on its businesses.

“Federal, state (rules), none of it goes this far,” he said. “I just don’t know how it’s going to affect businesses.”

Mercer said he agreed with the intent of the ordinance, and would have been happy to go to the General Assembly to testify for a new statewide rule.

“I don’t think this is a Pawtucket-specific problem,” he said.

Kallman, also a member of that committee, pushed the ordinance as a way to bring greater equity for the estimated 8,000 or so people in Pawtucket who are deaf or hard of hearing. This law “affirms all citizens” and is “setting a norm” of inclusion, she said. “As a hearing person,” said the councilwoman, she “wasn’t aware of how much this mattered” to people who can’t hear.

Kallman said she stopped by Antonio’s Pizza on East Avenue and had an employee there show her how to turn on the closed captioning. She doesn’t expect many businesses to be fined the $50 penalty for failing to turn on closed captioning, especially as businesses become familiar with it.

Kallman envisions enforcement happening when aggrieved parties call police to report that closed captioning isn’t on, and police then respond appropriately.

Pawtucket resident Tim Riker and others testified that a requirement for closed captioning in facilities like restaurants, gyms, hospital waiting rooms and hotels is “easy to follow” for businesses, with just a push of a remote control button required. They said they want an “equal experience” to others and not be forced to request that the captions on the TV screen be turned on. The requirement is especially important in cases of emergency when people are depending on the information from TV stations, said Riker.

Mercer questioned how the rules will be enforced at a restaurant like Arigna, where he observed some 15 televisions, all on mute, as loud music played. In that scenario, everyone is being treated the same way, he said, and captions could block the scrolling sports information at the bottom of the screen. Mercer said he would prefer to come up with a compromise requiring captions on a certain percentage of TVs.

Councilor Cano urged that the council “take a stand” for the city and push for similar rules on the state level. She said she doesn’t believe businesses will be adversely affected, but said residents who have to request that closed captioning be turned on are impacted. Pawtucket should be known as a place where closed captioning is turned on without people having to ask, she said.

Councilor Tetreault appeared flummoxed by the proposal from Kallman.

“What happened to basic courtesy and consideration?” he asked. He wondered aloud if there are significant issues with people who are hard of hearing not being granted the courtesy of closed captions by owners of establishments.

“We have to have a law and fines threatening people who are discourteous to those who have an issue with hearing?” he said. “I know it’s a rude, impersonal world we’re in, but Pawtucket needs a law on the books threatening discourteous people?”

Councilor Wildenhain said his grandmother was hard of hearing and his family “lived on closed captioning,” but he questioned the wisdom of the ordinance. He said the council would be taking away the right of someone who wants closed captions taken off the TV screen so he or she can see more of what’s going on.

Kallman responded to concerns by saying that the inconsistent use of closed captioning “clearly is a problem.” People who are deaf and hard of hearing shouldn’t have to fight to have the captions turned on, she said.

Kallman noted that there are plenty of things that might be seen as inconveniences in daily life that help those who face special challenges. Those inconveniences “very much fail to reach the threshold” to warrant eliminating them, she said. Not providing closed captioning automatically and making people ask is a “violation of dignity,” she said.

Councilor Barry said he supported a requirement for closed captioning because it would make life better for some of the residents of the community.

“Why can’t we lead the way on something that’s right?” he said. “And this is right.”

Council President Moran said he wasn’t comfortable voting for the ordinance since the council didn’t seek much input from businesses. He said he thought implementing a new law without seeking substantial feedback from those required to comply with it was putting the “cart before the horse.”


A Pawtucket city ordinance that is locally enforceable with a fine is the most effective way. A state law would be very difficult to enforce and be too complicated and time intensive to file a complaint.

The problem with this law has nothing to do with the state laws. This is government over reach. We don't need to impose a law on our business owners. They are not babies who need the government to tell them how to think. A "violation of dignity "? Really? Because they cannot hear the boob tube? How is not having cc's hurting anyone? Whose idea was this?

before they force a business to have SAP turned on as well or close captioning in Spanish? TV meet trash bin problem solved.

Barry, is forcing someone to do something or else be criminally punished really leading?

I wonder how well thought out this whole thing was by the council. I get the underlying issue, but I think that this was an issue that was best tackled by the state legislature. I think the biggest mistake of this whole thing is this

"Kallman envisions enforcement happening when aggrieved parties call police to report that closed captioning isn’t on, and police then respond appropriately."

As if the police department isn't taxed enough, charged with enforcing so much, providing community police/support they are potentially going to be bothered with this. Its just unfathomable.

But it should not be a law period- state or city. Unfortunately the deaf cannot be guaranteed a right to an "equal experience". By the city or state. It's just another unfairness of life issue. If the deaf community wants all Pawtucket business owners to have cc's then they should educate them and request- not force another law on people.

I'm sure the police have more important things going on in this city. Let's stop all other issues and give someone a ticket for this.

Thank you, thank you, thank you to the council. As a person who is hearing impaired, I am very grateful. Now if only the movie theaters would do this.